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"JOJO RABBIT"
(2019) (Roman Griffin Davis, Thomasin McKenzie) (PG-13)


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QUICK TAKE:
Black Comedy: A 10-year-old Nazi boy's life is turned upside down when he discovers that his mom has been harboring a Jewish teenager in the walls of their Berlin home during the waning days of WWII.
PLOT:
It's 1945 and Jojo Betzler (ROMAN GRIFFIN DAVIS) is a 10-year-old boy who's completely enthralled with all things Nazi-related, including his hatred of Jewish people, something he shares with his imaginary friend, Adolf Hitler (TAIKA WAITITI), who he hopes to meet for real someday.

Along with his friend Yorki (ARCHIE YATES), Jojo is looking forward to being indoctrinated into the Hitler Youth by Captain Klenzendorf (SAM ROCKWELL). But when he can't kill a bunny given to him by young adult Nazis -- earning him the nickname Jojo Rabbit -- he tries to make up for that with an act of derring-do.

But that results in him being injured, Captain Klenzendorf being removed from his duty, and both of them relegated to office work alongside the likes of Fraulein Rahm (REBEL WILSON). That's a relief to Jojo's mother, Rosie (SCARLET JOHANSSON), who's holding down the fort by herself while her husband is off in Italy fighting the war.

What Jojo doesn't realize, however, is that his mom has been hiding 17-year-old Elsa Korr (THOMASIN McKENZIE) -- a Jew -- in a secret room behind the wall of their house. When he discovers her, he threatens to turn her in, but she says that if he does they'll take away his mother for harboring her. Thus, the two kids enter into an odd sort of truce of not letting anyone know what's going on.

But even as exposure to Elsa starts to soften Jojo's brainwashed stance, dangers still lurk about, such as that presented by Gestapo official Captain Deertz (STEPHEN MERCHANT) who shows up sniffing around for conspiratorial material.

OUR TAKE: 7 out of 10
Due to being the son of a WWII veteran, I grew up immersed in all things related to the war, from books my dad collected to movies based on the famous battles (I still have a drawing from first grade where I recreated the entire movie "Tora! Tora! Tora!" on a single sheet of paper).

That, of course, meant that I was a huge fan of the TV show "Hogan's Heroes" that aired from 1965 to 1971 (meaning I most likely saw most of the episodes in syndication, what with being born only a year before it all began).

I still recall enjoying watching the various Allied POWs outwitting the buffoonish Nazi officers and only notable guard. But I'm fairly certain I didn't realize the bravery of those involved making a sitcom -- about what are arguably the most notorious villains in the history of the world -- a mere two decades after they were defeated and when the true horrors of their actions really came into the public light.

It wasn't until writing this review that I discovered that the actors who played the central German figures were all Jewish (which I guess is how the production received its initial consideration and green light), and that playing against type now occurs more than half a century later in the uniquely named satirical comedy, "Jojo Rabbit."

Whereas that old TV sitcom never featured Hitler himself (as far as I remember), that figure is front and center in Jewish writer/director Taika Waititi's film that he's adapted from Christine Leunens's 2008 novel "Caging Skies." Granted, while that buffoonish character appears in many scenes, he's really only present in the imagination of our young titular protagonist, Jojo Betzler (a terrific Roman Griffin Davis). He's a 10-year-old boy who's already ingrained in all things Nazi-related and desires to one day meet the Fuehrer who, until then, he's created out of thin air. But he gets his nickname when he's unable to show violent tendencies toward a bunny handed to him as part of his Hitler youth indoctrination.

When he later tries to make up for that with an act of incredibly dangerous derring-do, both he and his German captain instructor (Sam Rockwell) get kicked out of the program, much to the relief of Jojo's mother (Scarlet Johansson) who's not only had to hold down the fort while her husband is off "at war," but is also secretly harboring a teenage Jewish girl (Thomasin McKenzie, also quite good) in a secret room behind the walls of their home.

Of course, Jojo eventually comes across Elsa and spews all of the hatred and prejudice that's been force-fed into his head by society. At this point, all of this might sound somewhat to greatly unsavory or at least uncomfortable to behold. Yet, beyond hitting all of the right black comedy notes to take the edge off (and then some), the thematic point of all of this is how impressionable young minds can be easily molded to believe bad things (something that certainly resonates in today's world). And it shows that such brainwashing can be reversed with something as simple as being exposed to the "enemy" and seeing that they're otherwise just like you.

That said, there are still harrowing moments -- such as when Gestapo agents (led by one played by Stephen Merchant, first appearing as if aping the head Nazi from "Raiders of the Lost Ark") show up and begin looking through Jojo's house -- as well as heartbreaking ones (related to what was just mentioned) that give the film added gravitas and depth that don't initially appear will ever rear their head based on all of the silliness that otherwise bounds through the 108-minute offering like an overzealous hare.

While it might seem odd, risky or downright disrespectful nowadays to make a comedy featuring the Hitler Youth and the Fuehrer himself -- even with the likes of "Hogan's Heroes" and "The Producers," among others, paving the way -- the comedy is blackened in just the right ways to make this a delicious satirical comedy. I was greatly entertained and thus rate "Jojo Rabbit" as a 7 out of 10.




Reviewed October 11, 2019 / Posted October 25, 2019


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